Castro is probably the most controversial and divisive Latin American political figure, and the wealth of reactions to his death have made this abundantly clear. Cuban exiles in Florida celebrated the passing of their native country’s revolutionary leader. There will be nine days of public mourning in Cuba, with various news reports from Cuba showing genuine sadness of the population at the passing of ‘El Jefe Commandante’.
Political leaders throughout the world have reacted to his death in various ways. Donald Trump called him a ‘brutal dictator’. Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, called him a ‘champion of social justice.’ Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau said that ‘Castro’s supporters and detractors recognise his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people.’ The leaders of Communist countries, such as Vietnam, China and Venezuela, referred to him as a great friend and comrade, as did some African political leaders in countries where Castro send troops to fight against colonial forces.
I do not think it is productive to look at just one side of Castro. Yes, he was repressive, I am not justifying or rejecting that, but at the same time he changed Cuba’s trajectory political forever, some of which was for the good, and he inspired many across the world. The most interesting thing is that many of those who focus on his wrongs do not acknowledge that their states sponsored similarly repressive dictatorships in developing countries.
Castro came to power by overthrowing Fulgencio Batista, a US backed dictator in 1959. Batista had come to power in 1952 through a military coup. After seizing power, the US government backed Batista financially, militarily and logistically, despite the revocation of the main political liberties and political repression. This US policy towards Cuba was consistent with its traditional approach to the Caribbean basin. This was a nationalistic victory for Cuba, and Castro combined his socialist ideology with nationalism and this nationalistic focus continued throughout his regime with his refusal to bow down to the US despite continual sanctions, embargoes and assassination attempts. It is undeniable that this is part of the reason why Castro’s death has conjured such upset across.
Alongside his strong stance against the US, Castro did implement some socio-economic reforms in line with his socialist ideological convictions. These policies did not benefit all of Cuba’s society, but Castro’s aim was to improve the plight of the Cuba’s poorest. For example, he cut rent by 50% to the lowest paid workers, abolished segregation laws, made free education available to all Cubans and introduced free health care and a mass inoculation programme.
Despite what his advocates may think and want to present, there is a dark side to Castro’s legacy. He refused to hold free elections and established a one-party state where the only accepted ideology was communism. He established an intrusive state security apparatus which observed all Cubans and was responsible for repression of any suspected opponents. Repression began with the execution of Batista government officials who were unable to flee following the revolution. There was also repression of those of different religions and homosexuals. It is possible that some of the repression was a response to the hundreds of attempts on Castro’s life from the CIA that made him paranoid, but that does not justify the policy. The dissatisfaction of some Cubans was clear in huge migration to the US, which some see as their only option for survival. There was censorship of all media and restriction of internet access.
To add to this, Castro failed to radically improve the socio-economic circumstances of the majority of the Cuban population. Some sources put wages at least than £15 a month. Although the US embargo was at least partly to blame, many historians have also argued that Castro’s ill-fated economic policies were to blame.
It is important for us to not idolise or vilify Castro, but look at him more subjectively as he was. A man who stood up to the US in its traditional sphere of influence and implemented genuine socialist policies, some of which were not entirely successful, whilst simultaneously repressing any political opposition and his own population. Unfortunately for him he lived too long for history to be able to absolve him for his human rights violations. There is much for everyone, but especially politicians, to learn from Castro.
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